Critics Fault Response to San Diego Fires
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Most of San Diego County schools reopened today. Just one week ago, wildfires forced hundreds of thousand of residents to flee their homes. The fires are largely under control now, though some critics complain that mass evacuations were only necessary because San Diego's fire response wasn't up to the challenge.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: Nothing says life is getting back to normal more than a good San Diego Chargers tailgate party.
Mr. CHRIS CAMPBELL(ph) (Resident, San Diego): Rain, sleet, snow, fire - we're coming. We're all here.
KAHN: Chris Campbell and six friends relaxed in blue and gold lawn chairs, tossing back beers and bratwursts down the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium. You couldn't tell that just two days earlier, the stadium housed thousands of firestorm evacuees. Diehard Chargers fan Kirsten Henderson(ph) says football is the perfect distraction.
Ms. KIRSTEN HENDERSON (San Diego Chargers' Fan): We need a day off of worrying and freaking out.
KAHN: There weren't any beer or broth at the Rancho Bernardo Community Baptist Church.
Ms. LOUISE WAGNER(ph) (Resident, San Diego County, California): We're making chicken salad sandwiches.
KAHN: Last week's fire ripped through the church's sanctuary. But yesterday, Louise Wagner and dozens of volunteers served up lunch for Sunday worshippers. Wagner says, four years ago, in the devastating Cedar Fire, firefighters couldn't save nearly as many homes here as they did this time around. Fewer than 2,000 were lost.
Ms. WAGNER: Even though it wasn't good, they learned. So there was progress made.
KAHN: Among that progress, which has been wildly praised, is improved communication between the county's multiple fire departments and the new Reverse 911 system that helps safely evacuate more than half a million people. Still, UC-San Diego Political Science Professor Steve Erie says those improvements were the least expensive and politically expedient to make.
Dr. STEVE ERIE (Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California-San Diego): We're only talking about adding 20 to 30 dollars a month to the average property tax bill in San Diego to begin to bring this city and county, this region, up to national standards. Elected officials won't propose it and voters will say no.
KAHN: After the 2003 Cedar Fire, San Diego's fire chief told the city council he needed at least 22 more stations at a cost of $40 million a year. The council balked and the chief quit. U.C. Professor Erie says San Diego's firefighting strategy now has just rely on others to come to the rescue.
Dr. ERIE: San Diego has been on the federal dole for a hundred years. It was a Navy town, and we're used to, in a sense, asking for help from outsiders and not doing it ourselves.
KAHN: Critics of San Diego's preparedness often compare it to Los Angeles County. You can't effectively fight these huge Santa Ana wildfires without enough aircraft, says Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman. He has more firefighters per capita than San Diego and three times the number of helicopters and fixed-wing air support.
Mr. MICHAEL FREEMAN (Fire Chief, Los Angeles County Fire Department): We've invested, you know, tens of millions of dollars of the taxpayers' money to provide that air assault.
KAHN: It sure paid off for Los Angeles during last week's wildfires in Malibu in northern L.A. County. Freeman says he got first word of a fire in Malibu at five in the morning. By 6 a.m., he had five of the county's nine aircraft dousing the blaze. Only 27 homes in L.A. County were lost. But in San Diego, the air assault was delayed for the first day and a half as bureaucratic snafus and safety issues kept aircraft on the ground. Freeman says every fire is different, but because his pilots know their terrain so well, they will fly in conditions other pilots won't.
Mr. FREEMAN: If you rely on outside aircraft, they may not be as familiar with every nook and cranny of that county.
KAHN: San Diego officials, including Mayor Jerry Sanders, defend their reliance on state and military aircraft. Here's the mayor on NPR member station KPBS.
Mayor JERRY SANDERS (Republican, San Diego): You know, I think that you'd always like to have more fighters and you'd always like to have more police officers. San Diego has always been pretty thrifty that way.
KAHN: So thrifty that one year after the devastating Cedar Fire, San Diego voters defeated a hike in the tourist tax that would have funded additional fire and public safety resources.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Diego.